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COLUMN: The DH's Ever-Changing Role

Jacob Freedman |
April 4, 2012 | 12:59 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

Prince Fielder and other stars are now playing DH to give them rest from fielding duties(Steve Paluch/Flickr)
Prince Fielder and other stars are now playing DH to give them rest from fielding duties(Steve Paluch/Flickr)
Another season of baseball is here. This can mean only one thing: another year of debate about whether the designated hitter position needs to go the way of the dinosaur and become extinct.

Gone are the 1990s, where full-time DHs like Edgar Martinez, Frank Thomasand Paul Molitor terrorized American League pitching year in and year out.

The day of the long-term DH is almost past, and the position has undergone a massive revitalization in the past five years. Rather than be a pit stop on the road to retirement for aging sluggers, the position is turning into one of careful rotations and decisions that demands planning and constant adjustment.

Few players grew up in the sandlot dreaming of being a DH, yet the spot’s .769 OPS was 2nd in the AL in 2011, only to the traditional heart of the lineup, first base. With the AL's overall batting decreasing, having gone down every year from .275 in 2006 to .258 this past year, hitting is at more of a premium.  While DHs have traditionally been sluggers who sacrifice batting average, 2011 marked a shift in this trend, where DHs exceeded the norm with a league-wide BA of .265. A new era of pitching supremacy has emerged in the wake of the Steroid Era, which is a reason why AL managers need to put more and more emphasis on the extra bat they receive.

The fact that there are fewer full-time DHs than ever before is a result of a newly popularized approach of managing: half-days. What this strategy entails is that if a manager decides one of his players needs a day of rest in the field, he will plug in that player as the DH for the game. With this, the manager will be able to rest the players’ legs without losing their hitting abilities for the entire game.

Many position players, some notable ones being Twins catcher Joe Mauer and the Tigers’ pair of superstars in Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, have been and will continue to be used in this fashion. This is especially prevalent at the most physically exhausting field position, catcher, in which many teams simply employ a platoon system in which they rotate catchers on almost a day-to-day basis.  

Additionally, this new concept helps managers ease players back in once they return from injury. This upcoming season should be a perfect example of this usage of the position being put in motion. Twins first baseman and four-time All Star Justin Morneau, and Angels first baseman Kendrys Morales, who finished fifth in MVP voting in his first and only full season, both will start out the season at DH after missing significant portions of the last two seasons.

Full-time DHs like David Ortiz are a dying breed(Keith Allison/Flickr)
Full-time DHs like David Ortiz are a dying breed(Keith Allison/Flickr)

Not only does not having a full-time DH clear up space for players whose managers don’t want to play the field on a nightly basis, but it will also be used for other purposes this season. Look at Jesus Montero of the Seattle Mariners: Though Montero came up through the Yankees’ farm system as a catcher, his skills behind the plate are not quite major-league level. So rather than keep Montero and his 30-HR ability on the bench, the power-starved Mariners instead will slot him at the DH for the time being.

Similarly, the with the rise of Eric Hosmer, former Royals first baseman Billy Butler will be taking over full-time at DH this season. Butler and Montero are not in the mold of the traditional aging slugger, but the position is nonetheless used to mask their fielding deficiencies while giving their teams’ young lineups the best combination of power and defense available.

Despite all the upheaval and redesign going on, there still remains the archetypal DH on a couple of rosters. David Ortiz should continue to reach or approach the 30 HR, 100 RBI plateau while Adam Dunn should rebound from a historically bad season in 2011 to provide instant power to the White Sox lineup. Additionally, the Yankees will continue to be the last stop on the way to retirement at their DH position, with the rapidly declining Andruw Jones and 39-year-old Raul Ibanez expected to split most of the time at the position after Jorge Posada decided to hang up his cleats this winter

As much as baseball purists detest the DH, which is nearing its 40th anniversary, change is necessary in all sports. Baseball, as a sport resistant to alter its ancient customs, is not immune. Instant replay, an expanded Wild Card system and expanded interleague have all been very recent changes to America’s pastime. The DH has taken on a new identity, and rather than be a stain upon baseball’s integrity, it has emerged as an exciting strategic twist.

Do you agree? Still think the DH should be eliminated? Contact Jacob by email or follow him on Twitter



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